The Thought-provoking: Stray Cats and your Locus of Control


~ 5 minute read ~

One simultaneously wonderful and dreadful thing about the West[1], is that people believe it is possible to control just about everything, and are generally confident they can. In fancy psych lingo, this is called having a large locus of control, and high self-efficacy. Whether it’s our weight, our politics or the amount of traffic on our street… it all feels controllable (there was once an outrageously controversial campaign in my neighbourhood to a put a no-left-turn sign at the end of one street… no, seriously… people still get heated about it now and it happened like 8 years ago).

In metaphorical terms, the West is that annoying friend who starts to plan your entire life when you tell them you can’t make it to their party (“But wait… if you just changed your flights, and got a babysitter for the kids, you could totally stop by for half an hour”). If you are from the West, try to remember the last time you were too late for a flight. When the beaming customer service agent said “I’m sorry sir/ma’am, but you’re gonna have to re-book”, did you simply reply with “sure will!” and start pulling out your wallet? No… you asked 6 more times if you could just take both bags as carry-ons, and then you tried to magically check-in using the kiosk.

In Indonesia, people seem to have far more normal-sized loci of control. And at times, this can annoy my Western-bred temperament, and frequently leave me repeating the thought “What the hell!? Why has no one changed this?”

For your enjoyment, here are a few examples:

Ex 1. Traffic

There is a sidewalk on the left that I am trying to walk on.

The traffic in Jakarta is arguably the worst in the world. Most people I know spend 3-4 hours per day inhaling exhaust fumes in their car. This leaves little time to attend their basic health needs— exercise, cooking a healthy dinner, getting enough sleep, or taking time to relax after a long work day. For these reasons, I would argue that the traffic is slowly killing people. If you think this argument is too much of a stretch, then consider the fact that 12 Indonesians actually died last year from “fatigue and other health complications” when they got stuck in a 3-day traffic jam (click here for details).

Despite its severity, Jakartans talk about traffic as if it were just as much under their control as the weather. The general sentiment being: ‘yeah… it sucks, but we deal with it’. No one claims to have an elaborate solution for the government, or a secret back-road shortcut that saves them 15 minutes. No one vows to move closer to work, or leave the city altogether. There are no petitions, protests or letters to the Mayor. They accept it.

Ex 2. Blaring airhorn

Now this is one’s my favourite. There is a 4-way traffic stop that I pass everyday on my way to work, and every time the light turns green, a blaring air horn ruptures the ear-drums of everyone within half a kilometre. The air horn is then followed by an equally loud voice speaking ultra-fast Indonesian for 30 seconds; so fast in fact, that no one actually knows what the voice is saying! Yes… the true purpose of this elaborate human torture contraption, is unknown by every Indonesian I have asked.

This is the kind of trivial annoyance would enjoy a quick death in the West— likely through a series of community association meetings, or a few dedicated seniors bombarding the Mayor’s office with angry voicemails. Yet in Indonesia, this annoying, purposeless contraption lives a prosperous, healthy life. Why? Because the City controls the airhorn and it is no single person’s job to change this. It is far easier to apologize to your eardrums for 30 seconds of senseless pain, then to sit through multiple boring meetings or consistently check on the status of your pending complaint at City Hall.

Ex 3. Stray Cats

My neighbourhood is full of stray cats, most of which could easily star on a rabies awareness ad. When I say ‘full’, I mean seeing one cat every 30 seconds on my typical walk to work. And if you’re a weird cat person who’s eyes just lit up with jealously, I’ll only ask you to consider that these cats are not cute, and do not want to cuddle with you. Their main purpose is to expand your knowledge of animal-borne diseases.

Despite the blatant annoyance of this cat army, my neighbours really don’t seem to care. The cats are allowed to hover around the table while they eat, or roam around the entrance of their house. If the cats get too close, they are temporarily shooed away with a splash of water or the swipe of a broom. But nothing more than this— no time or money spent on elaborate cat deterrent mechanisms or putting up barbed wire fences.

A women taking her lunch break from an office job, is met by 4 of the worst things in the world.

When I think of an analogous situation in the West, I think of the copious amounts of time and money that people spend protecting their gardens from feral animals. For some, the site of a motionless dandelion is enough to trigger a costly, emotionally-charged war against weeds.

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The headline speaks for itself.

As much as the loci of control for Indonesians seems to leave gaps where daily annoyances run rampant, there is a case to be made for their “accept, and move on” approach. It can save time, money, and frustration. Last night, in an effort to sleep in a completely pitch-black, mosquito-free room, I spent $15 on a dodgy mosquito light, and over 30 minutes positioning furniture to block enough of the light’s shine so I could enjoy my God-given right to sleep in complete darkness. While all this was happening, the security guard for my apartment was sleeping on a wooden bench outside. I’m still wondering who slept more comfortably.

For a moment, think about how much time you spend trying to perfectly control things that hardly make a difference in your life; the hours spent comparing products online, finding the perfect song before you start your workout, debating what restaurant to go as if it was your last meal. Would your life be that much worse if you bought the first product that caught your eye, put your music on shuffle, and occasionally went to the closest restaurant?

Our need to expand our locus of control is the ultimate double-edged sword. At a micro level, it can result in stress and plenty of time wasted on limiting trivial annoyances. But at a macro level, time-consuming complaints, protests and law-suits can lead to better functioning society (less traffic, air horns and stray cats).

[1] For the purpose of this post, I define “the West” as Canada and the U.S.

Entry 2 – The Bad: Travel Anxiety

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In my last few months of high school, one of my favourite teachers asked me the dreaded “so what are you doing next year?” question. My response, as always, included the name of my prospective University, followed by a filler phrase like “yeah, it should be pretty exciting”.

“That will be great!” he replied, “it will be the best four years of your life… and if it isn’t, then you did something wrong!”.

His response crippled me with fear and sparked this immense pressure to make the most out of every… single… second… of my time at University. Pressure to be the friendly, adventurous guy who spent his days at the campus coffee shop, making witty jokes with newly-minted friends, and spent his nights playing drinking games at exotic-themed parties or joining quirky campus clubs— all the while, getting A’s in every class. (This was a fantasy I regularly indulged, but rarely lived.)

Putting this pressure on myself regularly resulted in me spending the better part of my freshman year metaphorically throwing my hands up in frustration going “when does this start becoming the best part of my life?”.

It was only after I let go of this dumb-ass idea that University was supposed to be the best time of my life (sorry, fav teacher… it was dumb) that I was finally able to start enjoying it.

The place where I actually spent most of my nights during University (this is a library, for those who were expecting book shelves).


No seriously… I spent so much time in the library, that I would occasionally get dressed there.

For me, travelling is the same thing. I’m 22 and have 6 months in Southeast Asia. I have nothing holding me back. This is the time when I should be climbing volcanoes, swimming with sharks, and partying till 3 am with strangers in crappy hostels. This is the time to make memories I will cherish till my dying days. But sometimes, dare I say often, I don’t feel like it. Instead, I feel like coming home and having an unmemorable nap or re-watching an unmemorable Youtube video. Of course, with every nap I take, and every weekend I don’t spend in a new exhilarating destination, there is an underlying anxiety that I will regret my sluggish decision. “What am I doing?” I’ll think to myself, “why am I not seizing this once-in-a-life time opportunity?”.

Once in a while I force myself to be adventurous by riding someone else’s coat tails. If they portray themselves as a trip-planner—even in the slightest— I jump at the opportunity to tag along. This is a travel ProTip if you’re someone who doesn’t mind going with the flow, but needs someone else to kickstart “the flow”.

I did this with a fellow intern for my first weekend in Indonesia, and stumbled across this cool looking waterfall.

Waterfall in Bogor, Indonesia.

I also did this when my sister and her boyfriend came to visit me, and I actually did end up climbing a volcano…


View from the top of a volcano in Bali, Indonesia.

Entry 1 – The Good, The Bad and The Thought-provoking


My goal is to make this blog both interesting and honest. If you know anyone in their 20s who has traveled recently, then your appetite for effervescent selfies in front of random museums has probably been satisfied. If not, here is one:


I truly have nothing against people who post photos of themselves having the time of their lives while they explore the world; but, if you are a twenty-something-year-old with a social media account, and have friends remotely similar to mine, this can engulf you. Your self-esteem slowly starts to dwindle somewhere between Jessica’s elephant ride in Thailand and Mark getting drunk with strangers at a soccer game in Amsterdam (both are actual posts I have seen in the last week). When confronted with this reality, the only logical thing to do is question your entire life path and start looking up cheap flights to Europe (you think I’m kidding).

Anyways, I am not here to make fun of Mark or Jessica, but rather to write something that you will walk away from thinking “Hmmm. . . so that’s what it is like to travel there and do that”, rather than “Oh my god. . . why didn’t I ever do that? Why am I doing this? How close are they to building time machines? Let’s look up that New York Times article I read like a week ago about that physicist guy who was, like, pretty certain that time-travel is legit. . . where did I read that again? . . . Did Uncle Rick email that to me or did I just read it in a waiting room somewhere?”

To satisfy my previously stated goal, I have chosen to structure my blog posts as so: The Good (first post), The Bad (second) and The Thought-Provoking (third. . . and then I will keep repeating this format till I get bored of it).

The Good

So I am interning for the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), whose work in Indonesia covers an extremely broad range of crime. UNODC’s four official sub-programmes are: 1) Anti-corruption, 2) Transnational Drug Trafficking 3) Criminal Justice 4) Drug Demand Reduction and HIV/AIDS (if you want to read more detail about this, click here)

I have serendipitously ended up working in an area that wonderfully fuses Psychology and Politics— my two areas of academic interest. Broadly speaking, the area I am working in is: preventing and countering violent extremism in prisons. On any given day, my work includes other words/topics like de-radicalization, rehabilitation and reintegration, and effectively managing violent extremist prisoners.

Okay but what am I actually doing? Well, like most jobs, it changes daily. So maybe I’ll just list three specific things I have done in the last week? (some details have to remain confidential, so this still may be a tad vague).

1. I started planning a conference where the main focus will be developing a national plan to improve de-radicalization of violent extremist prisoners in Indonesia. This conference will include representatives from federal government agencies, civil society organizations and foreign embassies. I had to draft an agenda, budget and invitation list.

2. I wrote a public service announcement about drones being used to smuggle contraband into prisons. This PSA is meant to serve as a preemptive warning of growing security threats, and will be circulated to various government agencies and international organizations in the South East Asia region (and possibly globally). For this, I had to research how big an issue “drone smuggling” has become and write up specific recommendations for addressing the issue. I was surprised with how big an issue this actually is— read this article if you’re curious.

3. I attended many meetings with Indonesian government agencies and foreign embassies. All of these were with my boss or senior coworkers, so they —understandably— did most of the talking. These meetings were most interesting when I was listening to other people talk about programs I had never heard of, and thinking of what I could say about our program, that would be of use to them. These meetings were a tad boring when there were long periods of time where everyone was speaking Indonesian. When this happened, I would usually entertain myself by observing body language, how often people were interrupting each other, and other elements of the work culture. Most of these meetings were attended by three people from each organization (so six total) and 90% of the discussion happened between two people (one from each organization). While this happened, the non-talkers would take notes or look ostensibly intrigued. Also, in Indonesia it is acceptable for men to wear these funky, traditional shirts called Batiks, instead of dress shirts or suits. In North America, you would only see such attire on hipsters longboarding their way to music festivals or poetry slams. In Indonesia, Batiks pass as formal attire for everyone from cab drivers to the President.

My driver Zul, wearing a short-sleeve Batik.


Indonesian president Jokowi and former president SBY, dawning Batiks on a formal occasion.
Myself wearing a Batik, and the Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Indonesia wearing… a suit.

That’s it for now. If you want to see more pictures I have taken, click here.

Second post coming soon!